header is screenshot from Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II
Three Minutes
Kaile Hultner

 “When she stepped outside

Raised her eyes to the sky

The fatal stare is somewhere up there

Looking for someone to die

Soap and water

Will never get rid of that spot

That she's got” 

—Coriky, Clean Kill (2020) 


The first three minutes of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II are perfect. 

We start in medias res, camera absorbing into the body of British special forces operative Simon “Ghost” Riley as he makes his way through a narrow canyon to an overlook point in an otherwise nondescript desert. This is supposed to be “the United Republic of Adal,” and knowing this only really does two things: signify to us that we’re in the Middle East, and let us know that we’re definitely not pulling a beat-for-beat recreation of a real-world high-profile assassination. Geographically, Adal is supposed to be a neighboring country to the last Middle Eastern country Call of Duty: Modern Warfare made up, Urzikstan, which is absolutely not Iraq or Syria.

As we clamber up the canyon walls to our designated position, three voices chatter in our ears. General Shepherd, Gold Eagle Actual, the US Army official in charge of this operation; Kate Laswell, CIA analyst, our intelligence expert; and Phillip Graves, the CEO of a private military contractor called Shadow Company. The perfect marriage of the public and private sectors, synergy between the state and capital in motion. 

A helicopter passes overhead, bearing our target to their destination. We only have a few moments to get into position and scope this guy out. We get to our cliffside perch, go prone, and pull out a scope with an infrared targeting system built in.  

The barren valley below us is filled with a hodge-podge of the enemies of freedom: fighters from Al Qatala, the anarchist terrorist organization from the last game; Russian arms dealers; and our target, Iranian Quds Force General Ghorbrani. 

Please remember and understand: this is absolutely, positively not a beat-for-beat recreation of the assassination of Iranian Quds Force General Soleimani. 

In Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II, Ghorbrani is buying weapons from the Russians, which, according to the game’s logic, means he likely has intent to use them against targets in the West. This is—and we cannot stress this enough—one hundred percent not like how the United States assassinated another country’s major general—who we weren’t even remotely at war with—at the beginning of 2020. We are ordered to mark Ghorbrani with our IR tracker. With the click of a button, a little indicator lights up above his head. Target identified.

Cut to a different camp several miles away. A shipping container unfolds like a paper doll to reveal a cruise missile inside. The camera pans around the container, lingering on a shot of the projectile reaching its fully extended length, before floating through the open side doors to reveal a tiny control center. Sitting at the boards is Phillip Graves, Shadow Company CEO, reporting for duty. He presses some buttons and flips some switches, and the missile launches in a great ball of fire and exhaust smoke. The camera then travels through his mini display, and suddenly, we are the cruise missile. 

We fly at top speed through a different, shallower canyon than the one Riley is posted up in, hitting imaginary checkpoints to keep ourselves on track. The canyon opens up into the valley, and our target, a flashing red diamond hovering above Ghorbrani’s head, begins to beep at us. We are told to engage our thrusters, to piledrive into the general at the highest possible speed, the ground eaten up under us, the sound of our propulsion crackling behind us. 

The feed goes black. We return to Ghost’s side as the bomb explodes, wiping the entire camp out. Target eliminated. Cut to title. MODERN WARFARE II.

A perfect three minutes. A perfect encapsulation of the ideological underpinnings of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare as a series. A perfect miniature demonstration of how this game franchise has, for years, tried to impress upon players not just a particular military doctrine, like counterinsurgency, but the very ways in which the West, and specifically the United States, views itself in relation to the rest of the world. 

The world as seen through the lens of Modern Warfare’s fluid and multinational quilt of “good guys” is a constant roil of conflict and chaos. Where you or I might see a busy urban center, Task Force 141, to say nothing of the Army and CIA, sees an unlit powder keg. In the first game of the rebooted series, we step out of a helicopter and into the midst of a conflict that has, according to the game’s lore, been going on for decades. Most of what we learn about said conflict is piped to us over the radio, though we do get one or two flashback missions that go deeper. Starting in medias res is therefore not out of the ordinary for this franchise. 

But with “The Strike,” Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II takes this to an entirely different level. The game demands the player’s full buy-in as soon as we integrate with Ghost’s body. Why are we in Adal? Who is Ghorbrani, a character we’ve never seen before? How does any of this connect to Modern Warfare (2019) or any of its post-campaign special ops missions? None of these questions really have an answer, and even if they did, the mission would still be the same. Ours is not to reason why; ours is but to do or die. 

It’s a risky move, compelling the player to commit an act of state-sanctioned murder in the first three minutes, but Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II does so confidently. If the player had a chance to think about what they were doing, would they make another choice? Would they, like Captain Price in Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare’s “All Ghillied Up” mission, opt to merely grievously harm the general instead of kill them? Would a player decide not to pull the trigger at all? The idea of an alternative to completing the mission is laughable. Much like the logic of counterinsurgency itself, you can either get onboard with what Modern Warfare II is selling or you can leave. 

In the process of writing this essay, I read several primary-source documents, including the US Army/US Marines Counterinsurgency Field Manual 3-24. An idea I kept coming across in these documents was that, “If the decision to go to war is ‘just,’ enemy misconduct cannot make it morally impermissible to fight it,” as Sarah Sewall put it in the University of Chicago Press introduction to the COIN manual in 2007. In other words, if the “enemy” plays dirty, so must “we,” and we cannot accept criticisms that might put “them” at a moral or strategic advantage.

This concept also comes up in Modern Warfare repeatedly, most famously in the line uttered by Captain Price: “We get dirty so the world stays clean.” But up to now, Call of Duty has been pretty meticulous at showing players why the people they’re fighting are the “bad guys.” When fighting Al Qatala’s leader, the Wolf, we first run up on him about to shoot a Marine in the head. When going up against rogue Russian General Barkov, we get flashbacks to him bombing and gassing a village and waterboarding innocent Urzik civilians. Going back to the original trilogy, this is also true of every “villain” we faced, from al-Asad to Makarov. With Ghorbrani? He’s just a guy who stepped out of a helicopter as far as we know.

The philosophy of jus ad bellum is laid bare as a farce here, in just these three minutes. War is “just” because the state says so; the fight goes wherever we point our guns next. The people the state considers to be allies are mere tools; enemies are whoever the state designates as such, for any or no reason. This kind of self-reinforcing logic may assuage the troubled souls of generals and bureaucrats, but if it was right, if it was in any way actually compelling, military recruitment numbers wouldn’t be at their lowest point in decades, and game franchises—like Call of Duty—wouldn’t be pivoting to making insensate battle royale theme parks out of War on Terror imagery even as their vestigial single-player campaigns grow more desperate to prove their own necessity. 

“The State is an instrument of exploitation and death; therefore it is an instrument of war. [...] We therefore establish that war is a State activity which does not characterize a transitory and circumscribed period of its action but has been the very essence of its structure for as long as we know during the whole course of exploitation.”

—Alfredo M. Bonanno, "Towards Anarchist Antimilitarism" (1982)


Kaile Hultner bought and played every single Call of Duty: Modern Warfare game in preparation for this essay only to have the first three minutes of Modern Warfare II body them into the next century. Read their work about other video games at noescapevg.com.